Place your characters in an environment and let them be.
Sometimes writers are pace driven and have a story they simply need to get out. Often their characters are floating in space, meeting midair without a notion of physical dimension. Time and place have been forgotten. To these writers, I suggest bumping up the setting.
Other writers overextend into descriptives. Perhaps they’ll write a three-page segue through the history of the seventies by way of locating the reader in time, or scribe a field guide to their new galaxy instead of touring the worlds via characters. I help these writers streamline location for plot’s sake.
When I say, “She’s in a room,” what do you see in your mind? Four walls and a doorway, maybe a window or three? Whatever you envision is cool with me. I don’t need to tell you all this:
In the living room, which was about 20 feet by 12 feet, longer than it was wide, she pulled the yellow velvet curtains open. The orange and green shag run mismatched the golden morning so much so that June felt she would faint or vomit from the color clash. The time was 8:18 a.m. yet the sun already shone bright white. The mist yet hung in the air and sounds of rush-hour traffic screamed by in the outer realms heard through the leaky windows.
It might be a matter of taste, but the above just feels like too much information for me. We don’t need the dimensions of the room or the precise minute on the clock. Why does the color of the curtains matter? Don’t be a control freak about the scene specifics. All of the detail obfuscates the point of what’s going on:
It’s morning in the living room and June is ill.
This simple reportage gets the job done, even if it takes away the layered nuance. In general, stories move along more meaningfully when the characters are telling it, not the setting or other minor descriptors.
June staggered away from the window, shielding her eyes from the morning sun. She fell to the carpet and dry-heaved. “David,” she croaked, “something’s not right.”
In these few lines, readers learn of a conflict, because the character shows us through actions and dialogue. All we need to get situated by way of locale is a window, and the morning sun locates us in time.
Our goal as fiction writers is to find a good balance between action and juicy details that are useful to moving the plot. The trick is to avoid wandering off the path into the thick underbrush of exhaustively descriptive weeds, a thirty foot patch of them, full of thorns and fruit and bird nests, and white rabbits in waistcoats, oh my … where was I …
Thus concludes my series on pacing. I hope it provided food for thought when it comes to tightening your writing through revision.
MARIE VALENTINE has edited diverse writers, from poets to romance novelists to engineers; her clients are often first-time authors and include mystery authors, Air Force pilots, family historians, and even a self-published congressman. Her experience as a business journalist and small press editor influences her professional work.